Making a Difference with Rhi-Zone

Article by Flora, Armenia, UWCD’18

“The secret of change is to focus all your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new.”

– Socrates

Going Glocal

Just as stated in the quote we – Yuyang, China, UWCD’18, Anahit, Armenia, UWCD’18 and me – started the project Rhi-Zone to move forward and make progress on issues deeply rooted across Armenia. The first important matter is the high number of local families relying on women left with poor prospects due to the labor emigration of their male family members. The second major issue is the level of pollution that results from the improper disposal of plastic bags in public areas and nature.

Rhi-Zone aims to provide a platform for the unemployed women of Dilijan to produce and sell ‘souvenir inspired’ eco-bags in the Armenian market and generate income to support their families. Eco-bags are available and affordable for the public and customers immediately become aware of the concept of recycling.

The name “Rhi-Zone” was inspired by the ancient Greek word “rhizome”, which is the underground stem of a plant that sends out roots and shoots from its nodes. Thus, the project itself was to plant the roots for the improvement of the socio-economic status of local women and change people’s mentality on plastic bag consumption by promoting sustainability in the country.

A Big Town Project Inspired by CAS

During almost two years of our active engagement in the initiative, we have been working with the Armenian grassroots organization named Toprak Petq Chi (Armenian for “I don’t need a bag”) to broaden the use of these eco-bags and increase their scope. We have also organized pop-up events and educational workshops in the local schools of Yerevan and Dilijan, among children aged 12-18, to increase awareness of environmental conservation. We believe that these issues will shape our future.

Rhi-Zone aims to provide a platform for the unemployed women of Dilijan to produce and sell ‘souvenir inspired’ eco-bags in the Armenian market and generate income to support their families.

We have been cooperating with Gnishik Intercommunity Environmental Foundation (Gnishik IEF) by forming an open presentation about the sustainability in the Vayots Dzor region. We also hold workshops with local women and children to share our ideas and production techniques.

To raise awareness and achieve promotion we have completed the preparation stage of the project by working with the Dilijan Community Center, which helped to locate the individual women affected by unemployment. We achieved the first inspiring success at the beginning of the year, with the first batch of bags sewn by local women being spray-painted by local students at UWC Dilijan.

The project runs simultaneously as a component of CAS co-curriculum activity and our group involves 12 students from 10 countries. We are working on receiving direct feedback from the community through interviews of locals as well as on the new designs of tote bags that might interest local organisations in Armenia.

It is hard to estimate exactly how many people from the local community we have engaged since we are working with the Community Center and women with sewing skills that we are in touch with. We have also worked with many local NGOs including UNDP Armenia. On our way to broadening the Rhi-Zone network, we carried out successful market research about the issues of inefficient economic activity in Dilijan. This helped us to identify certain stakeholders interested in purchasing Made by Rhi-Zone tote bags.

We have now become the chain connecting local women to consumers without having any major investment funds. Due to financial issues, we were only able to provide materials and designs to these women by indirectly managing the process of production held in their own apartments. Currently, more than six women are receiving incomes from Made by Rhi-Zone tote bags.

A Project Built to Last

The project itself has evolved through several changes and reconsiderations, which is inevitable when ideas meet with reality. We believe in the concept and continue to help fundraising activities. We plan to turn it into a well-established enterprise under which a new sewing factory can be created in Dilijan where 15 local women can find permanent employment in the first stage. This year we have been granted a UWC Go Make a Difference award, which shows our commitment to the UWC ideology and movement. This great feedback reinforces the significance of our project for the region.

Due to the long-term nature of our goals and the fact that some of us are going to leave Armenia to study in universities abroad, we plan to pass the project on to the next generation of UWC Dilijan students by relying on the members that are already involved in the project. In future, we are going to continue distant supervision during the academic year and come back to Dilijan during summer.

We believe that even just one permanent manufacturing facility or at least a reduction of the number of plastic bags used can truly make a difference. This will be a fitting tribute to the city of mountains that we have come to regard as our home.